The director said program participants underestimated the time and work involved.
By PEGGY SINKOVICH
and DENISE DICK
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
WARREN -- Roxane Hopkins bought the washers and dryers, but says she's the one who got taken to the laundry.
Hopkins and four other Trumbull Metropolitan Housing Authority tenants said their dreams of starting their own business quickly diminished.
"It was like we were set up to fail," said Pam Warfield, owner of Pam's Office Support and Management Services.
"I had just graduated with an associate degree from Trumbull Business School and was told that TMHA had this opportunity to own my own business and I couldn't believe it."
Reading the paperwork promoting the program painted a rosy picture: a 10-month course in which they learn the ins and outs of running a small business, a loan from Warren Redevelopment and Planning and a promise of business through TMHA to help get them started.
"Excited isn't the word -- we were ecstatic," Warfield said.
The businesses were to start in an incubator at TMHA with consultants to answer questions and provide guidance in the early stages.
Warfield's business was to provide services such as payroll, invoicing, quarterly reports and answering the phones for the other businesses.
They had visions of moving out of TMHA housing and becoming self-sufficient with money in their pockets and their bank accounts.
"When you're abandoned by your husband with a baby at 41 and you've been on welfare, owning your own business sounds great," Hopkins said. "I wanted to show other women that they can make it on their own, that they can be strong."
They say it didn't work out that way.
Hopkins planned to start two mini-coin-operated laundries for Fairview Gardens and Trumbull Homes. TMHA would provide two apartment units to be converted for the businesses. The housing authority also agreed to accept 25 percent of the gross revenue as payment for the utilities.
One of the laundries opened last month, but Hopkins encountered problems with the other.
She received an $11,500 loan through WRAP. Her repayment schedule is $270 per month for five years.
"It looked good on paper but not in reality," Hopkins said.
Sharon Nesby expected TMHA to designate $10,600 in a full season for her start-up business, Nesby's Lawn care and Snow Removal. She received a loan to buy the equipment, but it wasn't enough to buy the large-size mowers required for the jobs.
What TMHA chief says: Donald W. Emerson Jr., executive director of TMHA, disputes the women's contentions.
"Everyone wants them to succeed," he said. "Their businesses are only 3 months old. That's too soon to give up."
He maintains TMHA plans to honor the statements made by the letters to WRAP regarding the amount of business the women can expect through the housing authority.
"They're portraying that they weren't given a clear picture," Emerson said.
Building a business takes time and they were instructed to solicit business on their own rather than relying solely on the housing authority, he said.
Initially, 16 people signed up for the 10-month class, but only six stayed.
"It takes a lot of hard work, long hours and there are no guarantees," Emerson said.
Catalyst Consulting of Warren received a $15,000 contract to provide guidance and support and answer questions of those involved in the entrepreneurial program.
"The bottom line is we want them to succeed," the director said. "It makes us look good and it gives them the opportunity to become self-sufficient."
Success story: One business that has succeeded through the program is Val's Sunshine, a day-care center operated by Valeria Johnson.
Business was slow at first and Johnson grew discouraged.
"I stuck with it," she said. "I made fliers and word got out."
She now watches 11 children throughout the day. She started making her $94 monthly loan repayments in September on the loan she received last spring.
"It's a business; you have to go out and push it," Johnson said.
Others haven't realized the same success.
Expectations: Carla Thomas started a cleaning service, CT Environmental Services, with a $13,000 loan and was told she could expect a minimum of $20,000 in business the first year through TMHA.
She's gotten about $4,600 in business from the authority thus far.
"I should have been averaging $1,700 per month and I got nowhere close to that," Thomas said.
Emerson maintains she's in line to get the $20,000 the first year, but she has some limitations.
"She cannot do carpets," he said. "She refuses to do work past 5 p.m."
What didn't work: Emerson acknowledges that one of the businesses, Area Destination, the transportation company started by Donna Dudley, hasn't worked out. Dudley got a $20,000 loan through WRAP. She also had to pay about $477 monthly for insurance.
Her plan was to provide transportation to Trumbull County Department of Job and Family Services and TMHA clients to resident programs, classes, physician appointments, work and other activities in the southern half of the county.
She says she was led to believe her plan would work, but the customers didn't call, her insurance lapsed because she couldn't pay, and now she's looking for a job to pay back the loan.
Emerson said Dudley was offered a $1,500 loan by TMHA to carry her insurance, but she turned it down. She also turned down a contract opportunity with DJFS, he said.
Dudley acknowledges she rejected TMHA's loan offer.
"They can't be trusted," she said. "I'm already on the hook for $20,000, why would I take another loan even if it's for $100. It's still debt, big or small."
She says she was never offered a contract.
She canceled a meeting with DJFS. Agency representatives told her they had some concerns about what she was able to offer.
"I told them I'm not in a position to accept or deny anything at this point," Dudley said.
She said no one was trying to help until The Vindicator started to ask questions.
"This is not something we're just going to be able to kiss and make up over," Dudley said.